Donald Trump’s Treasury department eased US sanctions on Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler five days before the former president left office, quietly issuing a licence that temporarily lifts restrictions on the mining tycoon for alleged corruption in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The decision followed an appeal by lobbyists working for Mr Gertler, including the lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who had close ties to Mr Trump.
Mr Gertler was sanctioned by the Trump administration in December 2017 under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which froze any US assets he held and prohibited him from dealing in US dollars or with any American entity.
Under the new licence — dated January 15 — those restrictions have been eased until the end of January 2022, authorising US institutions to lift asset freezes and transact with Mr Gertler and dozens of his sanctioned entities for at least the next 12 months.
The reversal was met with immediate criticism from anti-corruption groups who called on the administration of President Joe Biden to reverse the decision.
“For a sanctions designation issued specifically for corrupt and secretive activities in the DR Congo and elsewhere, to have been privately undercut under a cloud of haste and secrecy at the very end of the Trump administration strikes a terrible blow to the heart of one of the most lauded and effective anti-corruption programmes of the last decade,” said Brad Brooks-Rubin, managing director of non-profit group The Sentry.
Mr Gertler, who denies any wrongdoing, declined to comment. Mr Gertler’s team of lawyers had worked with the Treasury department over many months to secure the decision and intended to put in place protocols to ensure full compliance with the terms of the new order, said a person familiar with the matter.
A spokesperson for the US Treasury department under Mr Biden said it was “aware of the action” by the previous administration but did not comment further.
Neither Janet Yellen, Mr Biden’s nominee for Treasury secretary, nor Wally Adeyemo, his pick for deputy Treasury secretary, have been confirmed by the Senate to take their positions. Any move to reverse the Trump administration’s licence would require their approval.
Mr Gertler amassed huge power and influence in Congo’s mining sector after arriving in the country as a 23-year-old diamond trader in 1997. He developed a friendship with former president Joseph Kabila and made a succession of deals with state-owned miner Gécamines. He secured access to some of its most lucrative mineral assets and partnerships with international companies including Glencore and ENRC.
But some of his activities became mired in allegations of corruption. In 2017 and again in 2018, the US Treasury department imposed sanctions on Mr Gertler and his global network of companies, many of which are incorporated in offshore “secrecy jurisdictions”. Mr Gertler had used his friendship with Mr Kabila to act as a middleman for sales of mining assets in the country, one of the world’s largest producers of copper and cobalt, the Treasury said in December 2017. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, it estimated that corrupt transactions involving Mr Gertler’s companies had cost Congolese state coffers more than $1.36bn in revenues.
In the past five years Mr Gertler has exited many of his biggest investments in Congo, selling his stake in two Glencore mining projects to the Swiss commodity giant in 2017. Glencore, however, has continued to pay Mr Gertler royalties he retained following the sale, processing the transfers in euros rather than dollars and avoiding the sanctions.
Glencore declined to comment on the easing of the restrictions. Glencore is being investigated by the US Department of Justice over allegations of bribery and corruption in the Congo and two other jurisdictions.
Eurasian Resources Group, the parent company of ENRC, also declined to comment. Mr Gertler is expected to receive royalty payments from a Eurasian Resources-controlled mine this year.